Little Big Man


By Alistair Horne

Modern Library -- 218pp -- $21.95

Bill Clinton, eat your heart out. By recent count, there are more than 600,000 books on Napoleon Bonaparte, himself a product of a hard-up family from the South and the object of a vast, right-wing conspiracy. Now, Oxford historian Alistair Horne has added a short, highly entertaining volume to the pile. The Age of Napoleon is a tonic for those wanting to rejuvenate their History 101 gray matter.

Men make history, Karl Marx observed, but not under conditions of their own choosing. So it was with even Napoleon: If it were not for the waning of revolutionary ardor in France, the inept and decadent reign of the Directorate, and the necessity of combating European armies, he would never have come to power. But in 1799, conditions were ripe for a coup d'état, and General Bonaparte reluctantly stepped into the breach, becoming dictator and, by 1804, Emperor.

On the other hand, Horne suggests, Napoleon's distinctive personality was key to his most enduring works, which were largely nonmilitary in nature. "Acting with the same speed and remarkable concentration of energy that characterized all his military operations," Bonaparte set the country's finances in order, began rebuilding Paris and providing it with a modern water supply, placed secondary schools under state supervision, and took the first steps toward a new, widely influential legal system -- the Code Napoléon. Such achievements, which left "an impact far beyond the frontiers of France," are a primary focus of The Age of Napoleon.

Horne, author of numerous previous books including Seven Ages of Paris (2002), also provides a portrait of French society. The urban poor still lived as miserably as under the ancien régime, and in 1806, as many as 75,000 prostitutes roamed the Paris streets. The army was able to absorb only a fraction of the unemployed, and, by 1810, desertion had soared, swelling the criminal underclass. Mean-while, the well-connected, such as diplomat Talleyrand, enjoyed "scandalous" opportunities for enrichment. Not even the distraction of military glory was sufficient to contain public discontent: With the Empire at its peak, "street-corner assassination" by secret police held people in line.

All in all, The Age of Napoleon draws an insightful sketch of an age and of an archetypal political character -- oppor-tunistic, talented, hubristic, and ruthless. He's a figure we still know well.

By Hardy Green

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